Planet Killers: A Spine-Tingling Look at Near Earth Objects, Mass Extinctions, and the Controversial Science of Planetary Defense, by Tad Friend, Byliner Originals, 2011. ($0.99: iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google, Sony, Kobo)
One of the joys of borrowing a stranger’s cabin comes from the serendipity of someone else’s taste in books. Years ago, in a corner of the hills east of Lake Winnipesaukee, I picked up a Stephen King anthology. I’ve long since forgotten most of what I read there, but King’s introduction stuck in my mind. The novella, he wrote, (I paraphrase from battered memory) was not so much a literary form as a kind of writer’s banana republic, a treacherous, alien territory into which innocents pass, never to escape unscathed. How and when to turn the plot; the number of characters one can develop; the pace; the amount of exposition the piece can tolerate – all these tasks shift as the writer moves from either the expansive canvas of a full book or the utter economy short stories demand. And until you’ve actually entered into that strange country, Novella, King warned, you have no idea how twisted are its paths.
Tad Friend dares such dangers in what amounts to a non-fiction novella, Planet Killers, published in the Byliner Originals series. It tells of the threat posed by crud from space that could strike the earth, and of attempts by a few scientists and engineers to figure out how to dodge such bullets. That'’s a fine premise, certainly, and of course anything that brings together dinosaurs, great balls of fire, and wild but plausible schemes with names like “gravity tractors” has got all the elements of a riveting read.
There's a bit of a wobble right at the start, though, as Friend recalls a tequila-fueled milliennial New Year’s Eve spent waiting for sunrise on the Yucatan Peninsula before leaping, abruptly, to the scene 65 million years ago, when it was a skosh more exciting in those parts, what with the dinosaur-destoying asteroid splashing down just offshore. From that rather jolting beginning, we settle into a story built on two pillars: a character sketch of the always enjoyable Rusty Schweikart, the Apollo astronaut, as Friend reports, most likely to show up at a New Age conference; and a loose narrative of a two day meeting by a NASA advisory committee debating strategies for “planetary defense” – basically how to avoid getting whacked by a major earth-crossing asteroid in the future.
Those two threads unreel rather calmly, given that our spines are supposed to be tingled. Schweickart and his co-conspirators fear that most decisions makers (and everyone else) are simply unaware of the existential threat posed by a major impact, and of the probabilities involved. Friend detours briefly into a natural history of asteroids and impacts. We get hints of the science involved – a mention of complex orbits; brief discussions of the technologies that might deflect really big rocks – that gravity tractor, for one, a spaceship that comes to rest close enough to a dangerous rock long enough before any predicted collision to permit the probe’s gravity to nudge the object onto a safe trajectory. In his best set piece, Friend manages to get inside his hero’s head– capturing Schweickart’s evolution from fighter pilot to save-the-earth crusader, in a process that began on his untethered space walk, when he suddenly felt the fragility of “pale blue dot” below him. Such anecdotes ornament Friend's reporting on the NASA committee deliberations, which culminate in a modest plan for planetary defense: spend 3 billion dollars over the next decade; launch a new space telescope designed to detection of potentially dangerous asteroids, and test the most promising couple of non-nuclear deflection technologies.
That recommendation comes as something of an anti-climax, but that’s par for the course for apocalyptic non-fiction, honestly told: what can be done is often less thrilling than what may happen if we do nothing. But the deeper disappointment with Planet Killers comes its own uncertainty about what it wants to be -- and that literary neurosis, in turn, derives from one of the less obvious challenges that come with writing into e-media.
That is: Planet Killers is an example of one of the two distinct species of works evolving in the midst of the e-book transformation. The gaudier one comes with the application of computing to the text. Think iPad apps, which allow creators to construct works that offer readers the ability to perform actions on and through the words and images of conventional tales. See, for example, Deborah Blum’s review of The Elements, something of a type-specimen of the form. From the scribbler’s point of view, app books also entail new models of working that move towards the ways movies are made, in which the writer is only one, and not always the central creative authority.
The other enabling e-technology preserves the author’s pride and power. Digitization and the ‘net combine to provide plain e-texts with a new channel for publication and distribution of what remain conventional works made up of words and plain images. The cost of such distribution is effectively zero – and while that’s so obvious it hardly bears noting, it still adds up to a genuinely new opportunity for writers. You may remember that dim, distant past of, say, six or seven years ago, when the length at which a writer could tell a story was fixed by the venue, a few thousand words for a magazine, many more for a book, with almost nothing possible in between. If you wanted to treat a subject that might not sustain between hard covers, yet offered more richness than could fit into two-pages-plus-the-jump of a magazine…too bad.
Now? The ‘net doesn’t care if it has to gulp down 5,000 words, 10,000, 25,000 -- whatever it takes to do justice to the material at hand. But there’s a catch. A 15,000 word piece is not simply a magazine feature at three or four times the usual length. It’s not a baby book either. Rather, such works demand formal structures of their own, with particular demands of organization, of narrative depth, of pace, and so on. Before you know it, you’ve drifted across the border that King warned about. You’ve entered (non-fiction) Novella, and, if you are unwary, it’s terribly easy to wander down the wrong path.
Which, by the long road home, brings us back to Planet Killers. The problem? There just isn’t that much there, there. Stripped to its narrative scaffold, all you really get are three steps on a short journey: the book begins with the threat of a big rock falling from the sky. We learn that some folks are working on it, without gaining any real depth on what those characters actually did to come up with their ideas. And then we are baldly told that there’s some agreement on an, incomplete response to the challenge. No great obstacles face any of Friend’s people; no event happens within the story that provides any sense of risk or danger; there are no ideas sufficiently developed within the text that yield some thrill, an Aha! that lingers for more than minutes after the last swipe across the screen. In the end, Planet Hunters reads not like a work written to the length it told its author it needed to be, and much more like a magazine article blown up to the dignity of an independent e-text.
Thus the fate of the unwary who venture into the Republic of Novella. The rise of the e-text makes getting there a doddle. Getting out, though? No easier than it’s ever been.
Image: August Müller, The Diary Entry, by 1885.
Tom Levenson writes books (most recently Newton and the Counterfeiter) and makes films, about science, its history, and whatever else catches his magpie's love of shiny bits. His work has been honored by a Peabody, a National Academies Science Communication and an AAAS Science Journalism Award, among others. By day he professes at MIT, where he directs the Graduate Program in Science Writing.